PASS urges School Board to create needs-based budget

A school advocacy group has sent a letter to the Shenandoah County School Board urging its members to create a school budget based on the division’s needs and not to give in to pressure to downsize the budget.

“On behalf of this county’s parents we are writing to ask you to resist any such pressure and instead propose a budget that honestly reflects the needs of our schools,” the letter from the Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools (PASS) Board of Directors stated about the upcoming development of the Shenandoah County Public Schools’ 2017-2018 school year budget.

Abby Walters, vice president of PASS, said PASS wrote the letter to the board in response to a statement from a county supervisor that the county agencies should base their proposed budgets on current year funding.

“PASS wrote the letter to show public support for the School Board rejecting that approach and instead adopting a budget that reflects the legitimate needs of the schools, which is their responsibility under state law,” she said. “We understand that the School Board does intend to adopt a budget based on the needs of the schools, as opposed to current revenue levels, so we expect the letter was well-received.”

Superintendent Mark Johnston said the division began the budget process in October by revisiting previously unmet needs and determining which of those remain among the highest priorities and to see what new priorities have arisen since last year’s budget development.

He added that he has also asked principals and program managers to review their budget lines and he has met with the Superintendent’s Leadership Team, which is composed of community members and staff from each campus, to see what their budget priorities are.

“Also, as part of my entry plan as superintendent, I have reviewed our data, to include but not limited to, data on achievement and teacher turnover, exit data, and recognize the increase we’ve seen in the past three years of 25 percent in teacher turnover,” he said. “We recognize that every time a position turns over, we experience much loss, not just financial in terms of the professional investment in training and developing our staff, but in the loss of expertise of a veteran workforce, which has a tangible effect on our students since the single greatest variable affecting achievement over which we can exhibit control is having a high-quality teacher.”

To decide what to include and exclude from the budget, he said the division identifies and prioritizes the greatest needs based on the division’s goals of student opportunity and achievement, effective communications, staff excellence, and system efficiencies.

He added, “Virginia is among the states across the nation that has yet to catch back up to funding levels for public education prior to the Great Recession. State funding remains woefully inadequate and remains approximately 13 percent below pre-Great Recession Levels.”

The PASS letter noted that the schools “have considerable unmet needs, from 20-year-old buses, to failing boilers; from dilapidated desks to inadequate broadband connectivity. Meeting these while continuing to pay competitive salaries to teachers and maintain quality instruction is not possible within last year’s budget framework.”

The letter also noted,  “The fact that these needs may remain unmet in the near term is not a reason to pretend that they don’t exist.”

The longer these needs remain unmet, the letter states, the more expensive it will be to meet them in the future.

“If the (county board of) supervisors choose not to fully fund the budget proposed, then the School Board should, as you have in the past, decide which needs will remain unmet,” the letter stated, noting that county resources are limited and a tight budget that is economically realistic is needed.

School Board Chairwoman Karen Whetzel said the board will follow the Code of Virginia when deciding upon a budget. The code calls for school boards to submit a budget that estimates “the amount of money deemed to be needed during the next fiscal year for the support of the public schools of the school division.”

Whetzel added that she has already spoken with teachers and instructional staff about their specific needs.

“I am always willing to listen,” she said.

She added that staff members, parents and the public generally weigh in on the budget after the proposed budget is presented by the superintendent to the School Board.

The fiscal year 2018 budget development calendar, which was adopted by the Board on Nov. 10, is available on the school division’s website at http://shenandoah.k12.va.us.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com.